Response to keynote presentation “Historizing the Making of Modern International Relations: Evaluating The Global Transformation” by Barry Buzan and George Lawson
Professor Barry Buzan of the London School of Economics at an international conference of scholars in the field of International Relations held in New Delhi in November 2012 presented a keynote paper jointly authored with Professor George Lawson also of LSE titled The Global Transformation: The Nineteenth Century and the Making of Modern International Relations. It is this paper that is the focus of the critique presented here. Theirs is a long and detailed study filled with a variety of rich insights. But for the purposes of the kind of critique that will be undertaken here it will suffice to present a summary of its essential structure and themes. This summary is done in two stages. The simple abstract given by the authors themselves is first presented followed my own short summary of its essential arguments.
“Unlike many other social sciences, International Relations (IR) spends relatively little time assessing the impact of the 19th century on its principal subject matter. As a result, the discipline fails to understand the ways in which a dramatic reconfiguration of power during the ‘long 19th century’ served to recast core features of the international order. This paper examines the extent of this lacuna and establishes the ways in which processes of industrialization, rational state-building, and ideologies of progress served to destabilize existing forms of order and promote novel institutional formations. The changing character of organized violence is used to illustrate these changes. The paper concludes by examining how IR could be rearticulated around a more pronounced engagement with ‘the global transformation’”. [B. Buzan and G. Lawson]
The authors make five important claims. 1) The study of modern IR must be situated in the study of modernity itself. 2) In this study of the emergence of a modernity of which we today remain the legatee, quite decisive is the global transformation wrought in the long nineteenth century from the late 18th century to WWI. 3) This global transformation is brought about by the emergence of a distinctive configuration of industrialization, rational state building, and new ideologies of progress themselves connected to the Enlightenment heritage and to later developing ideas of socialism, liberalism, nationalism, improvement, citizenship, etc. 4) The ‘leading edge’ of this transformation was in Northwestern Europe and the expansion of British power pushed other aspiring major powers to follow its path. Revolutionizing the means of production led to revolutionizing of the means of violence. War makes states as well as states making war, and the emerging international order was shaped and destabilized by the compulsions of industrialized arms racing. 5) The paper then naturally enough seeks to explain this emergence and growth of the three above identified dimensions of the configuration. In all three cases there are a) antecedent developments; b) contributions from the East outside Europe. So, temporally speaking, there can be no ‘big bang’ explanation of the emergence of modernity, and spatially speaking, no Eurocentrism to explain even the ‘European miracle’. But once this configuration emerges it is epoch-changing.
Insofar as this had a capitalist character this was preceded by a commercialization of agriculture and commercial capitalism with the rise of towns. But more important was Britain’s technological lead in early sources (coal and iron) and forms of motive energy-steam. Then in a second stage of industrialization, this was led elsewhere (Germany and US) and was based on chemicals and electrics.
There are administrative antecedents but it is in the nineteenth century that modern states emerge with highly centralized control over well–defined territorial spaces and with a legitimate monopoly of the means of violence. This is of course greatly facilitated by the industrial transformation of infrastructure and communications.
Ideologies of Progress
Again, antecedents from the time of Enlightenment thinking and its new doctrines and beliefs of universality, humanism, citizenship, etc. are important but it is the nineteenth century industrialization and the rise of the more full flown ideologies of liberalism, socialism, nationalism and progress along with an industrialization process that requires a new kind of functionalization and specialization of knowledge and research that really paves the way for a more rapid and cumulative advance of knowledge in the natural and social sciences.
This study by BB and GL is an attempt at promoting an International Historical Sociology (IHS) and is to be warmly welcomed not only for the richness of details and insights into the specificities of the nineteenth century global transformation but also on the following three grounds. (i) Their insistence on situating the study of IR in the wider study of modernity. (ii) The implication is that there is the necessity, therefore, of pursuing a multi-disciplinary approach and a break away from many of the ahistorical and asocial approaches that have so dominated the discipline. (iii) They are perfectly correct in highlighting the centrality of the nineteenth century in the process of the global transformation that has basically created the modern world order. For all its subsequent and dramatic changes, we remain the legatee of that transformation.
Their criticism on various grounds that existing IR theories do not give sufficient weight to the nineteenth century is basically correct with an exception that they have not directly referred to, namely that of the neo-Marxist school of Rosenberg, Teschke, Bromley et al, and its more recent adherents who have done much to bring about an exciting new trend in Marxist studies of IR. In fact, the late Eric Hobsbawm whose work on the long nineteenth century one of the co-authors Prof. Buzan, has certainly declared as having affinities with his own, highlights both similarities and key dissimilarities between the basically Weberian/NeoWeberian cast of their text and many a Marxist study of, and explanation for the rise of the modern world order. For Hobsbawm, understanding the nineteenth century and therefore what evolves afterwards in the 20th century, it is not just the centrality of industrialization — which gets star billing in the exposition of BB and GL — but also the importance of political and social revolutions, successful and failed, whether from above or below, that must be taken into account. Hobsbawm and other Marxists also emphasise the crucial sociological dimension behind this industrialization process, namely that it is capitalist. There remains then a divide persisting to this day between Marxists and non-Marxists howsoever sympathetic the latter may or may not be to the former, between those who while recognizing the multi-dimensionality of modernity insist on giving much more weight to its capitalist character and those who would much prefer to talk of a modernity that is also capitalist!
What I will try to do here is to point out some of the methodological contrasts between even the best kinds of Weberian/NeoWeberian influenced studies (in which this study should be placed) and the best kinds of Marxist approaches. This then leads to contrasting understandings at the more substantive level. It is testimony to the stimulating character of the paper that I take this direction rather than focus on a detailed assessment of their numerous claims and propositions. Let me first take the issue of methodology.
A Question of Method
In their analytical modeling Weberians/NeoWeberians typically take up three (sometimes four) domains of the economic, the cultural-ideological, the political-military (the latter is separated in Michael Mann’s remarkable work). They then assign different dynamics to each of the domains (even as they are influenced by each other) and then connect/combine these domains insisting however that they come together differently in different historical circumstances and periods. Insofar as there is social evolution over time it is episodic and contingent. Hence the stress by BB and GL on the importance of their particular three-fold ‘configuration’ emerging in the 19th century.
Marxists by contrast insist that there is a generalizable hierarchy of causes in which it is vital to identify the laws of motion of specific modes of production or of transitions between them in specific social formations, here, the rising capitalist mode of production in the 19th century and its further expansion and development worldwide in the 20th and 21st centuries. These laws of motion encompass much more than the economic; and even the relations of production are not purely economic. To understand a society then one has to grasp those laws of motion. Similarly, to grasp the inter-societal or ‘international’ order there is no escape from trying to grapple with those ‘rules of reproduction’ of those social orders and with the complexities arising out of their interactions. Insofar as reality at all spatial and geographical levels is always relational and differentiated, i.e. a contradictory unity, it must also be grasped analytically by a method that is totalizing and dialectical.
These two approaches then trade charges against each other. Marxists say to Weberians/NeoWeberians that you are guilty of theoretical eclecticism and methodological pluralism to which Weberians/NeoWeberians say yes indeed and thank goodness for that. This is a virtue and not a vice and avoids the dangers of reductionism and teleology of Marxists and Marxism, to which the response of many a Marxist is, no! The best Marxism is neither reductionist nor teleological but gives far more weight to agency, especially class agency and therefore to the open-endedness of historical outcomes and processes. This emphasis on agency tends to be much more absent in the structuralism of Weberian/NeoWeberian approaches hence the greater absence of references to revolutions as casual factors in the making of the modern world order. When it does feature as in the writings of Skocpol, Tilly, Goldstone, etc., revolutions from above and below are much more strongly connected to the debilitating outcomes of wars and to the pressures of, say, industrialized arms racing on states, a theme highlighted also by this paper. In the words of Skocpol “Revolutions happen, they are not made”.
Another crucial difference can be highlighted through a set of questions. Is the technological and organizational dynamism brought about by industrialization to be ascribed to the character and requirements of the industrialization process itself or is it to be located in the distinctive social relations of capitalism and the historically unique competitive pressures via market dependence that it imposes on those who control the basic means of production? To understand the world changing dynamic of industrialization do we not have to, above all, understand the world changing dynamic of capitalism and therefore the centrality of social relations and the forms and mechanisms, including the state, by which these relations are stabilized and reproduced? Behind the story of inter-state world orders then, is there not a more fundamental story of the uniquely powerful expansionist drive of capital (and of the resistances to it) and of the uneven and combined character of its development? Furthermore, to understand the emergence of the modern capitalist world order and its path of development since the 19th century down to our own times in the 21st century, do we not have to operate with a historically specific notion of capitalist-imperialism and not with the more generic and transhistorical notion of imperialism dating back two millennia and more?
The Substantive Issues
While there is disagreement about when and where capitalism emerges, there is agreement that the industrial revolution first takes place in Britain. How to explain this? Also, how to explain the emergence and growth of capitalism in Britain? For Marxists the first question flows logically enough from answering the second. For Weberians/NeoWeberians explaining the second helps in explaining the first but it is not the distinctiveness of Britain’s capitalism, of its social relations, that explains why it had the industrial revolution. In the explanation of British capitalism there is common ground between many Marxist approaches and Weberians/NeoWeberians in resorting to what has been called the “commercialization model.” Here, it is the rise of commercial capital activity in agriculture and in towns (merchant capital) that are seen as the key drivers. In sharp contrast, the Brenner school of what is called Political Marxism emphasizes the uniqueness of the balance of class relations between lords, monarchy and peasantry in England that explains the distinctive dynamism that propelled its agrarian capitalism towards generating a process of industrialization that became cumulative. This is important because it is precisely the offspring of the Brenner school such as Justin Rosenberg and Benno Teschke who have generated the neo-Marxist approach to IR theorization. In the paper by BB and GL the weight of explanation for Britain’s industrial leadership falls more on certain resource and technological advantages in the field of motive energy than it does on any distinctiveness of its capitalist social relations.
Regarding the modern, highly centralized, territorially precise, rational state the two authors have traced its emergence in a way that is both illuminating and instructive in many respects. But it is noticeable that they connect this emergence much more to the imperatives and resources of industrialization unlike the case with neo-Marxism in IR. There it is the character of capitalism with its distinctive separation of the economic and political that for the first time creates the ‘abstractly political state’ that must now defend the general interests of its own dominant classes whose national identification requires that this state must have territorially and juridically precise boundaries of a new kind. This kind of nationally sovereign state is the other side of the coin of the emergence of transnationalised relations of production and therefore a circuit of constantly recurring capital accumulation, realization and investment that is qualitatively different from the past where there were really only transnationalised relations of exchange and distribution along with localized production. This modern state is highly centralized, building on the antecedent forms and mechanisms that the two authors so lucidly point out, but can now be de-personalised and de-sacralised as well. This state must protect dominant class interests not just by coercion but by establishing a newer more consensual basis through new ideologies of progress and nationalism that can stabilise class domination over citizens rather than subjects.
Although these are two distinct approaches to IHS the very fact that they both bring in history and sociology to the study of the international; that they both insist on bringing in the methods of inquiry of the classical social sciences; that they both look at the large picture and are generally less impressed by perspectival relativisms, means they have much in common. Moreover, there is also a valuable cross-fertilization of arguments and insights borrowed from each other. Why then bother to choose or prefer one to the other? There are perhaps two reasons why the choice is nonetheless often made. One is the belief that this or that particular framework of analysis is a better entry point than the other into the study of the past and present, offering wider and deeper understandings and explanations. At this level of debate, the intellectual tussle is necessarily an open and ongoing one with no definitive judgement or closure because adherents to both schools of thought continue to provide newer and better studies requiring constant evaluation and comparison.
The second reason is perhaps more definitive. The emancipatory vision for making the future by Weberians/NeoWeberians tends to be more restrictive because its horizon of what is possible by way of progressive change in a modern industrialized world order is more limited than the Marxist emancipatory vision of the absolute necessity of transcending capitalism itself. In the dominant non-Marxist view a modern industrial order to be both adequately administered and economically sustained must have a functional division of labour that necessarily creates a certain hierarchy of positions and serves as a skeleton of sorts for the social division of power, itself inescapably hierarchical, within and across states. This imposes limits on the extent to which there can be a more peaceful, just and democratic world order, although it can certainly be better than what exists. The Marxist vision rightly or wrongly believes that the unavoidable functional division of labour in any advanced industrial order need in no way be a serious determinant or influence on the social division of power which can be far more democratic in all walks of life i.e., a much deeper substantivist vision of what democratic empowerment of people within and across societies can be. Different visions carry different inspirational charges for struggle. And one crucial struggle today is about extending the limits of what is currently the conventional wisdom about what human arrangements are both desirable and feasible in the domestic and international arenas.